A very successful photo has three things in common, and they’re not particularly surprising. The proper aperture, exposure, and focusing distance? The right camera, lens, and tripod? Successful use of hyperfocal distance, ISO invariance, and ETTR? No! The three variables that matter the most in photography are simple: light, subject, and composition.
Photography is light. Without it, you couldn’t take pictures in the first place, let alone good ones.
The quality of light changes from photo to photo, but, in every case, it’s what gives your images their underlying structure. You can’t get any more fundamental than that.
You’ve probably seen photos with beautiful light – photos which otherwise would have been somewhat ordinary. What is it about light that makes it so important to the ultimate quality of your photos?
At its simplest, light is emotion. The feel of your photograph will be vastly different depending upon the lighting conditions: harsh light, gentle light, warm light, cool light, and anything in between. Each type conveys a different emotional message, changing around the character of your final image. Although there are other ways to convey emotion in your photo as well, light is one of the most powerful.
If you’ve never given light much thought, just go out and take pictures. At some point, you’ll find yourself capturing a scene that has spectacular lighting conditions, and you’ll realize that taking great photos is almost easy.
What counts as amazing light, though? There are so many possible conditions that you could encounter. Which ones are the best?
Although I do think that there are some lighting conditions which are truly spectacular and particularly special – which I’ll cover in a moment – the truth is that any type of light could be ideal. That’s because, in and of itself, “good light” doesn’t mean anything. Instead, “good light” is light that makes your photos look how you want.
I routinely take pictures on cloudy, seemingly boring days, if the light works well for my subject. Is that really a surprise? In some cases – say, a rainforest after a storm – a overcast day is better than a dramatic sunset.